Four Reasons Why I Hate Top Lists

I had this conversation with an acquaintance about why I sometimes rewrite headlines to include the word “Top”, I some I explained to her that posts with those headlines tend to do better for SEO.

Even if the headline reads, “The Top Ten Reasons I Would Design My Site In Baker, California.” Users see “Top”, assumes David Letterman had some part in it, and click.

Voila, instant traffic!

Top lists are lazy writing

Whenever writers are low on ideas, the always lean on Top Ten lists — they are easy, and readers loved them. They’re also lazy, because they require very little real work requiring research, just opinion.

All you have to do is come up with some ideas of what the top items are, and write them. Unfortunately, most of the top lists have no attribution to studies nor have data to support them. Just one author pointing out what they think should be a top item on a list.

Top lists have no context

Smashing Magazine, which has nearly 120,000 readers of their RSS feed, publishes articles like 30 Free High Quality WordPress Themes. That’s wonderful, but for what?

Everyone does this. Jacob Nielsen does this (Top 10 IA Mistakes). Mashable does it. Jared Spool does it (Ten Ways To Kill Good Design). We do it, alot.

There’s no context what the lists are for. Can those WordPress themes be used for a personal site? A corporate site? A sports site? IA of what? All IA? Does some of it really cover interaction design?

For a field that uses “it depends” a lot when talking to clients, we sure have some absolutes, especially without context.

Top lists are usually a bunch of screen shots

Many of the top lists are great to do because they are a bunch of screen shots, but frequently we get no analysis of why they are great. It’s more of, “Here they are, they look cool, go get them.”

That’s wonderful, but for the multitudes of designers out there that are a designer only because they read Smashing Magazine, opened up Photoshop and started charging $50 an hour, the top lists may be the only articles they read.

There should be some kind of explanation why it belongs on the list. It might even be better to show poor design, and explain why it’s poor other than “it just is!”

Top lists only encapsulate what they have seen

There’s no way some of the people listed above have seen every website, talked to every IA, visited through every social media application, and documented every design mistake to make up the list. For example, it really should be Ten Out Of A Thousand Ways To Kill Good Design.

Our view of the world is very narrow, and it’s because we can’t process every piece of information of what we’ve seen, much less what we haven’t seen. (And in many cases, it’s up to us to provide filters for our readers, but with an explanation that we aren’t Moses coming down the hill with the Ten Commandments.) There’s just too much data out there, and that’s why we make generalizations based on our experiences and knowledge. Thus, we make judgment calls.

And publish top lists.